Centaury: This is another of my favourite wild flowers, which can be found along woodland rides, scrubland, and areas of shorter grass. You may pass it by, as the delicate and unusual coloured pink flowers, held on flusters at the tip of slender stems, close when cloud cover is high and open best in strong sunlight. However it is unmistakable when you do spot it. It is named after the centaur Chiron, who, legend has it, was healed by the Centaury when shot by a poisoned arrow. Whatever you think of the legend, these stories show how long a plant has been valued for its healing properties. Centaury is also one of the 15 ‘magical herbs’ and was used for exorcism. Robert Bridges writes of it, in ‘The Idle Flowers’. ‘Pale Chlora shalt thou find, Sun-loving Centaury’. Conditions: Sun after heavy rain. Temperature: Max 20 Min 10C
Wigeon: these beautiful and remarkable ducks were at Caerlaverock, SW Scotland having joined native Wigeon for winter, flying in from as far away as Siberia and Scandinavia. You can see them on many estuaries, lakes or wetlands round the UK in winter The males are easy to distinguish by the pale ‘punk’ stripe on their foreheads. They have a lovely whistling call, and dabble, feeding on weed in the water and grazing on grass on land, much like Geese. Conditions: Sleet and snow with sunny intervals. Temperature: Max 4 Min 1C.
Whooper Swans– one of the many joys of being able to send a couple of days at Caerlaverock Wildfowl and Wetland Reserve recently is to watch and listen to the families of Whooper Swans being fed grain, all part of the research project carried out over decades on these winter migrants from Iceland. Every bill marking in individual swans is unique and feeding them allows birds to be identified and ringed, and studied over their lifetimes. Less birds arrived this year, probably due to the mildness of the winter. Even the young (iidentifiable by their pale bills) all the way with the adults. I was lucky to hear Whoopers’
haunting calls across a loch in Iceland many summers ago, and it was stunning to hear them en masse again, sounding a bit like old car horns. Conditions: Like most of the country, in while storms rage around us. Temperature: Max 8 Min 5C.
Having taken a couple of days off from our chicken-sitting, we have had a wonderful time at Caerlaverock, the Wildfowl and Wetland Site on the north bank of the Solway Firth. It was a delight to watch our smallest Duck, the Teal, whose beautiful green wing-patches give rise to the colour-name teal. The males also have fascinating markings on their heads (see photos) and beautiful patterning on their bodies. A small
number nest in the uplands of the UK but the big flocks to be seen on wetlands, estuaries, gravel-pits etc in many parts of the UK in the winter are largely winter migrants, many flying in great distances from Siberia and the Baltic. Dabbling ducks, their collective name is ‘a spring’, from their ability to fly off suddenly and almost vertically if disturbed. Conditions: Cloudy but dry spell after much rain and hail. Temperature: Max 7 Min 1C.
Grey Heron- On a still, grey New Year’s Day at Rye Nature Reserve we watched this statuesque mature Heron stalking the shallow waters, among diminutive Redshank. Last autumn I featured an immature Heron and the colouring, size and length of crest and chest feathers are all more striking in adults like this. They have an ancient appearance and sure enough, 7 million year-old fossils bearing a close resemblance to today’s Heron’s have been excavated. They also have an aloof bearing which may account for the ancient Romans believing Heron’s to be birds of divination. They
The Woodcock Moon– a friend reminded me today (thanks Jude) that the wonderful full moon we have had is called the Woodcock Moon, based on a long-held belief that the thousands of Woodcock, which travel thousands of miles at this time of year from Latvia and Scandinavia to our eastern shores, use the November full moon to navigate. The jury is our but they certainly arrive in numbers now. It reminded me of an ancient belief, certainly not true, that the migrating Goldcrests and Firecrests, our smallest birds, the native population of which is swelled by similar long-distance journeys over the North Sea, rode on the back of Woodcock. No-one could believe this tiny bird could fly that far in such conditions on their own- but they do. Conditions: Another worryingly wet day, especially for areas of Lincolnshire and South Yorkshire already under 10 inches of floodwater. Temperature: Max 4 Min 3c.
We are out on the extreme East coast, at Spurn Point Nature Reserve and it is wild, windy and wet, so here are some Dark-bellied Brent Geese that we have been watching and listening to over the last few days, days which have see-sawed between wild and wet, and calm and bright. These beautiful, small geese (a little larger than Mallard) have migrated here, in family groups, from the boggy arctic tundra of Russia, where they breed. 91,000 Dark-bellied Brent geese migrate to marshes and coastal farmland along our East and South coasts before making their way back, via the Baltic coasts, to the arctic by June, as the ice begins to thaw. Whether this pattern will be sustained as global warming changes the nature of the tundra and the shapes of our coasts is in question-walking the land-edge yesterday there were many places where the low ‘cliff’ had been recently eroded by several metres, and Spurn Point itself now gets partially underwater at high tide. It is also an irony that The Brent Goose ‘gave’ its name to the vast ‘Brent System’ oilfield that extracts
oil from the North Sea and pipes it ashore in Shetland. Conditions: Torrential rain, and high NE winds. Temperature: Max 9 Min 7C.
Heartease, or Wild Pansy- one of my mum’s favourite flowers, and mine, so it was lovely to come across patches of them on one of their favourite settings- sand dunes- recently. They also appear on cultivated, sandy soils. The colour-patterns vary and it is easy to see why they are also called ‘Viola Tricolour”. ‘Pansy’ comes from the French, “pensee”, “to think” and Louis the XV decorated the coat of arms of his favourite advisor, Francois Quesnay’, who he called his ‘thinker’ with these little gems. Heartease has long been used in herbal remedies, for skin conditions, chest complaints, as an anti-inflammatory and a diuretic. It also has a long association with grief. Shakespeare, in Hamlet, has Ophelia strewing herbs after the death of he father, saying ” And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts”. Conditions: Warm, with sunny intervals. Temperature: Max 22 Min 12C.
Bottlenose Dolphins on the Moray Firth. One of the very special things we did on our recent Scottish holiday was to watch the Bottlenose Dolphins at Chanonry Point on the Black Isle, Moray Firth. Unless you are lucky, this takes patience but the rewards are wonderful- here are some photo’s of the mother and calf we watched catching a large fish, which the mother threw into the air by flicking her tail fluke. They do this to stun the fish before eating. A nursing mother needs to eat 8%of her body weight each day , and young can suckle up to two years and stay with the mother 3-6 years. There is a colony of about 130 Bottlenose Dolphins along the Moray Firth and they are the
most northern colony in the world. Because they have to survive in the cold north sea they are larger than other Bottlenose, needing extra fat and blubber to live in these waters. Conditions in Sheffield: Extremely hot, still day. Temperature today: Max 30C Min 15C.
Skuas– another couple of wonderful sightings from our Scotland /Orkney June trip, the Great and Arctic Skuas are predatory birds which will harass other birds, forcing them to release their catch of fish– they are sometimes called ‘piratical’ for this habit. Great Skuas, also known as ‘Bonxie’ In Scotland, will even tackle birds as large as Gannets and have been known to attack and eat Puffins as well as carrion. The Arctic Skua, now sadly on the endangered ‘red’ list, are very agile birds, flying fast and low, twisting and turning to harass birds to release their catch of fish- this one appeared over the coastal slope in front of me before zooming off across the heather. Conditions today in Sheffield: Warm and sunny Temperature: Max 21 Min 11C